Want to Write Like Kurt Vonnegut? Do More Pushups.
Not really, though.
I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. — Kurt Vonnegut, “Letters”
Daily routine is the difference between success or failure. The discipline of sticking to a schedule is the secret ingredient behind many of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. If you want to become a better writer, create a regimen and stick to it.
The Science of Routine
Our minds are in constant need of routine. Subconsciously, our brains create routine loops every chance they get. We are neurologically hardwired to function best in routine, but frequently, we lack the ability (or the desire) to create and control productive, meaningful routines, and so our brains slip into unprofitable ruts and bad habits. One way or another, our minds will create a routine, but it’s up to us whether the routines we practice are good or bad.
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg writes that the three key components to any habit are Cue, Routine, and Reward. Isolating each of those three components, and analyzing their respective place in the neurological loop of routine, Duhigg reveals that the best way to change or create a new habit is to tweak one or more of those three components. Without an understanding of what your particular habits are based on, it will be not only harder to change bad habits, but harder to inculcate good ones, too.
The discipline of writing is nothing more than programming your own personal habit loop centered around writing. Most, if not all, of the best-known writers have had some sort of routine, although the individual routines themselves varied greatly. The point of this post, though, is not to analyize the routines of famous writers and come up with a “12 things you can add to your routine” type of post. Despite the title, that’s not the intent of this post. I’m aiming to present a much broader view of the discipline required to succeed at writing.
Not Studying The Routines of Famous Writers
While I’m not going to say “you should write from 6:30am to 9:30am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and write exactly 2,000 words per day”, I do want to at least provide some overview of what we might call the “metahabits” of a cross-section of well-known writers.
Broadly speaking, famous writers are early risers. Or night owls. Either way, they don’t do their work during the typical work day. Generally, they like to work in quiet spaces, uninterrupted for several hours. Regardless of the specifics of their routines, some sweeping similarities can be observed.
1. Writing is both a mental and physical exercise, and both mental and physical preparation are important.
Walking, doing pushups, swimming, biking, rowing, jogging; these are just some of the activities to be found in studying the routines of some of the best-known authors today. Numerous studies have revealed the benefits on the mind of regular exercise. Increased focus, clarity, and better metacognition are the rewards for getting your sweat on as a part of your writing process.
2. Writing is a skill which requires dedicated time and space.
Several famous writers have had dedicated writing huts, or long-term hotel reservations, to better facilitate their uninterrupted writing time. While that may not be possible for you, it’s important to note the underlying reason for this separateness: Writing as a practice is most effective when you can commit large trains of thought and sections of material to the page at a time. Creating a written work requires a freedom from distraction that is tough to find amid the noise and clutter of everyday life. Whatever it looks like for you, finding a separate place and time to write will be massively beneficial for you.
3. Writing isn’t easy. Get over it.
While we would like to hold onto the image of our favorite author sitting down to their computer or typewriter and, with fingers flying unerringly over the keys, creating our favorite book in one fell swoop of literary genius, the reality is ALWAYS different. While there are certainly successful authors who do sit down at the keys and don’t stop until they’ve reached their daily word count, the number one recurring theme among the daily routines of successful writers is this: Write, no matter how badly, just write and then when you’re done writing, edit. Reread, analyze, make changes. The hard work of writing is in the editing and refining stages. Sometimes, just getting that first word on the page seems like the hardest part, but the reality is that at that point, the work is just beginning. The greatest writers of our time knew one thing about this creative task of writing: discouragement is the surest poison to creativity known to man. Regardless of how hard it may be at times to write, maintaining that routine, and discipline, will stave off the discouragement of unproductivity. No matter how bad your Shitty First Draft really is, just having that material to work with will enable you to remain productive and focused.
The best way to get better at writing is to write. But many a great American novel has died in the mind of its author simply because they were unable to set down and stick to a routine for their creative process. While we like to think of creativity on the part of others as some sort of magical, mystical force that enabled them to be Great Writers, we know from our experience, and from their own debunking, the reality is something very different.
In the end, while talent and vision are great to have, and will be beneficial to any writing career, the number one difference between the successful writer and the unsuccessful one is the ability to create and stick to a writing routine. Like any discipline, writing must be practiced, and must be honed daily.